State-owned electricity utility Eskom has been most comprehensively messed up. Stronger words apply . . . but anyway. Black economic empowerment (BEE), government incompetence, employee incompetence, overemployment, theft, corruption and renewable energy have all combined to bring the dinosaur down.
I left Eskom in 1989. I had worked as a senior engineer for operations. It was a fabulous job. The salary was good, the work fascinating and the working staff top class. Ninety per cent of us did a good job. My managers were good and caring. Electricity was very cheap. Power systems were well maintained. Long outages were unheard of. In the case of large losses of load, a seminar was held, where the causes of the outage were examined in minute detail. Corruption might have existed but was pretty much nonexistent. If people did step out of line (as in theft, misuse, embezzlement), they were swiftly dealt with: charged, plea-bargained, fired, forgotten, pension confiscated. Virtually no cases went to the High Court.
Then came the idea of BEE. It made sense – to give previously disadvantaged people a step up to a position they may have attained if they had been given an equal opportunity. In what was typical Eskom fashion, the utility attacked the matter head-on – it set goals of the percentage of employees who would be black people and set a timeline. No problem there. But it offered white employees the opportunity to step aside: if you were 55 or older, you could retire on full pension, as if you were 65. If an employee retired or died, the replacement had to be in line with BEE policy. If no suitable replacement was available, then no appointment was made. A lot of institutional knowledge disappeared.
In theory, those retiring would train up those replacing them but, generally, this did not happen. There was discontent about BEE and so the training, which should have been a fundamental requirement in the BEE implementation, was not implemented. It became worse when the training departments themselves were BEE transformed – they should have known, or should have found out, what training was needed, specifically for employees of a power utility. Instead of courses such as ‘fault protection calculations for medium-voltage systems’ and ‘the effect of voltage stability in transmission lines’, there were courses such as ‘business process re-engineering’, ‘train the trainer’ and ‘behavioural anchors and competance menus for employees’.
These courses emerged out of a realisation by accounting firms (which barely knew the relationship between amps, volts and impedance) that much money was to be made by selling the concept of effective training and that the actual training material did not matter. The training departments did not know any better. About this time, middle management realised that it was quite easy to employ additional staff. The previous rigid control that limited staff numbers in budgets disappeared as the old guard disappeared. So, staff numbers increased as empires were built. But it really did not matter – Eskom kept on running, the lights stayed on and things worked.
In 2003, a number of engineers, including myself, did the calculations and realised that, if another power station was not put into construction – and soon – then Eskom would run out of generation capacity. Government told Eskom, in keeping with policy, that a power station should be built, but by the private sector. So, a delegation was sent to various countries to borrow the money. The Germans would invest but wanted to own more than 50% and run the station. The British the same. The French wanted a 30-year build-operate-and-transfer-to-Eskom contract. The Americans, stung by the Enron scandal, were just not interested.
In a burst of mindlessness, while power outages loomed, Eskom had mothballed the Camden, Grootvlei, and Komati power stations, which it had deemed to be ‘inefficient’, but now began to recommission them. In a further triumph, Eskom agreed to allocate a large chunk of power (about 1 000 MW) to aluminum smelters in Richards Bay at a cut price. More stupidity was to follow. (To be continued.)